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Year:
2013
Publisher:
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ISBN 13:
9780425259375
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Bishop-SCU 15
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Titles by Kay Hooper

			Bishop/Special Crimes Unit Novels

			HAVEN

			HOSTAGE

			Bishop Files Novels

			THE FIRST PROPHET





			THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

			Published by the Penguin Group

			Penguin Group (USA) LLC

			375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014



			USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

			penguin.com

			A Penguin Random House Company

			This book is an original publication of The Berkley Publishing Group.

			Copyright © 2013 by Kay Hooper.

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			BERKLEY® is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

			The “B” design is a trademark of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

			eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62491-3

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Hooper, Kay.

			Hostage / Kay Hooper.—First Edition.

			pages cm.—(A Bishop/SCU novel ; 2)

			ISBN 978-0-425-25937-5 (hardback)

			1. Bishop, Noah (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Government investigators—Fiction.

			3. Survival—Fiction. 4. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. I. Title.

			PS3558. O587H67 2013b

			813'.54—dc23

			2013028695

			FIRST EDITION: December 2013

			Cover photo of “Woods” © Guillermo Rodriguez Carballa/Trevillion Images;

			photo of “Man” by Haveseen/Shutterstock Images.

			Cover design by Rita Frangie.

			Text design by Kristin del Rosario.

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



	 Version_1
; 




		Contents


Titles by Kay Hooper

Title Page

Copyright

Author’s Note



PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

EPILOGUE



Haven Operative and Special Crimes Unit Agent Bios

Psychic Terms and Abilities





AUTHOR’S NOTE

			Once again, and at the request of many readers, I have chosen to place this note at the beginning of the book rather than after the story, so as to better inform you of the additional material I am providing for both new readers and those who have been with the series from the beginning. You’ll find some brief character bios, as well as SCU definitions of various psychic abilities, at the end of the book, information that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment of this story and of the series.





PROLOGUE




Shayna Freeman woke with a throbbing headache and the groggy realization that she must have really tied one on the previous night. Not that she could remember, but that had to be it because she never felt this bad unless alcohol was involved.

			Stupid. Stupid. When will you learn to ignore a dare?

			That was usually how she got in trouble.

			She just lay there for a while, eyes closed because she knew from experience that the room would be spinning dizzily if she dared open them. Gradually, though, things started to nag at her. The bed beneath her felt oddly lumpy and . . . damp. The air she breathed had a stale, faintly sour odor. Even through the headache, she was aware that the room felt weirdly hollow somehow. And cold. She didn’t feel covers over her. Why not?

			Little things.

			Lying there, eyes closed, feeling more and more cold, she kept telling herself nothing was wrong. Again and again, she told herself that. Because if she believed it, then . . . well, then, nothing was wrong.

			Nothing.

			Shayna didn’t know how long she lay there with her eyes squeezed shut, the mantra of nothing being wrong on a continuous loop in her mind, before she finally forced herself to open her eyes.

			Dark.

			But not . . . completely dark.

			She thought she could make out heavy timbers above her, the sort she imagined would be used to hold up tons of earth to allow a passage into a mountain. For a mine of some kind, maybe.

			She was in a mine?

			How on earth—

			She tried to move her arms, to lever herself into a sitting position. And that was when she heard the loud rattle and felt the heavy constriction on her wrists. Both wrists.

			Instinctively, she tried to reach one hand to check the other and discovered it to be impossible. Whatever she was lying on, the chains, the . . . manacles . . . were fastened from her wrists to either side. She couldn’t even push herself up to her elbows, because there wasn’t enough play in the chains. Couldn’t lift either hand high enough to confirm what she felt.

			Not handcuffs. The bands around her wrists were wide and heavy. The chain was—sounded—thick. Old. Rusty. She could smell the rust.

			And when she tried to move her feet . . .

			She lay there for some unmeasurable time, staring up at the heavy beams and trying not to think about why someone would have chained her, wrists and ankles, to an old, smelly, lumpy cot in what might have been a mine somewhere in the mountains.

			Because that was surreal.

			Something like that didn’t happen, not to her. Not to anybody she knew. Because it was just . . . crazy. She didn’t have a rich family, so nobody would consider kidnapping her for ransom. And if she hadn’t been kidnapped for ransom, then . . . then . . .

			Young women were snatched every day. She saw it on the news. Snatched out of their lives without warning, sometimes never to be seen again. And sometimes . . .

			Sometimes seen, found, as bodies buried or floating in rivers or just left somewhere like garbage.

			Bodies showing the evidence of the horrible things that had been done to them, unspeakable things.

			She could hear herself breathing in shallow little gasps, the only sounds in the cold, dank, hollow space all around her. The chill was seeping into her, into her very bones, a kind of cold she’d never felt before.

			A terror that took hold of her and squeezed and squeezed until it forced out a sound, a name she hadn’t uttered since she was very, very young.

			“Mommy . . .”



* * *



HIS DOGS WERE well trained, well fed, and well housed. In fact, if he was inside the cabin, so were they.

			He didn’t approve of chaining dogs. Besides, they were more likely to be protective of what they perceived as the pack’s territory, and he wanted that to be wherever he was.

			It had cost him valuable time and effort to make the necessary detour to pick up his dogs from the friend who had taken them in when he’d been positive he was going to be arrested.

			It had also cost him a chunk of money from his stash, but he didn’t begrudge that. His friend had clearly taken good care of the dogs, and the money was not only compensation but also strong incentive not to talk if the police managed to locate him.

			Not that Jacoby expected them to be able to do that. He had been warned before his capture, and in time to make his preparations. And everything since then had gone very much according to plan. After his escape, he had switched cars half a dozen times, and he’d destroyed GPS units before moving the cars an inch. Still, paying his friend well for his care of the dogs just made good sense.

			Not a lot in Jacoby’s life made good sense.

			The voices in his head, for instance. The ones telling him to do Bad Things. That didn’t make good sense. It didn’t make any sense at all. It never had.

			You have to go after him.

			Some of the voices were soft and whispery, and some were distinct, but they almost always spoke in concert, their words identical.

			“No, I don’t.” He brushed the largest of his three dogs, gently removing twigs and dried leaves from her thick coat. “He’ll go away. They always go away and leave me alone.”

			They caught you before.

			“That was a mistake. I was careless. The target was too big and drew the wrong kind of attention. You made me do that.”

			You had to push your boundaries, Cole.

			“Not that far. There was no reason to go that far. To take that much. It won’t happen again, not like that. And I told you. They always leave me alone when I hide in these mountains.”

			Not this one. He’s different. You know he is. You felt it.

			“He ran, didn’t he? They all run. They all leave me alone once I run them off. Besides, I shot this one. Hit him. There was blood.”

			You have to go after him. You have to be sure.

			“I’m sure. He’s dead.”

			Then why does your head hurt, Cole? Why did the nightmares wake you up again last night?

			“You. It’s your fault. You won’t leave me alone.”

			Because the job isn’t finished. It was never about the money, Cole. We all know that. It was just the next step. The money was just bait to draw the right kind of attention.

			“I didn’t want attention. I never want attention. I just want to be left alone.”

			When it’s all finished, Cole. You agreed. And now you have to finish what you started.

			“But I—”

			Right now, you have to change the game. You have to hunt the hunters. Because they’re coming for you. He’s just the first.

			“No. They’ll leave me alone.”

			Not this time. There’s already someone else. Someone you need to take care of.

			“It’s just him. Nobody else found me.”

			Someone did, Cole. Someone who can hurt you.

			“No, I’m safe here. Safe. I’ve made sure of that. Nobody is coming to get me. Nobody is taking me back.”

			Do you really believe you can hold them off alone?

			“I can. I will. If they come. But they won’t. They won’t come after me. Because all I did was steal some money, and after a while they just stop looking for it.” His head was pounding, and it was becoming more and more difficult to think straight.

			Not that his thoughts had been normal for a long time. Not since he was hardly more than a kid. Not since his cellmate all those years ago had slammed him against the metal corner of his cot.

			Jacoby wondered if that son of a bitch was dead yet.

			Concentrate, Cole.

			There had been so much blood, surely he was dead.

			Cole—

			“Leave me alone! Why can’t you leave me alone?” He felt the dog tense, then tremble, and forced his hands to gentle her. “It’s okay, girl. It’s okay. Just ignore them, all right? Just ignore them.”

			We’re not going away, Cole. Not until you keep your promise. Not until you do what you agreed to do. You have to stop him. Stop them. And you have to take care of the girl.

			“I—”

			You have to do what we taught you to do. Don’t forget, Cole. Don’t forget who we are.

			He felt the distinctly unpleasant sensation of something cold touching him, like an icy hand stroking his back. Up and down, up and down, making him shiver.

			“I remember,” he whispered.

			Then don’t fail us.

			“No. No, I won’t. I promise I won’t.”





ONE




TUESDAY




Luther Brinkman could see his breath misting before his face in the moonlight; mid-October was cold this year, even in the South. Many hardwood trees that normally showed off colorful foliage that drew tourists to the Blue Ridge were already bare-limbed and glittering with frost, and the rest boasted only dead brown leaves clinging stubbornly.

			“Shit.” He paused and leaned against a big oak, grimacing as he adjusted the makeshift bandage around his upper thigh.

			Would have been nice if it was at least a through-and-through. But no. I have to have a bullet grinding against bone every time I move.

			Painfully against bone.

			That was the way it felt, at least; he hadn’t exactly gone digging around in the wound to find out for sure. Slowing the bleeding was the best he’d been able to do. Ignoring the throbbing pain, he concentrated on controlling his breathing so he could better listen.

			He couldn’t hear the dogs any longer. That was something. Whether it signaled an end to the pursuit or only a pause was the question uppermost in his mind. It was well past midnight; the bastard might well have decided that his wounded quarry wouldn’t get far, that waiting for daylight to resume the chase was his best bet.

			Or to look for a carcass. Even way out here, it wouldn’t be smart to leave a dead body just lying around for the wrong person to stumble across, and he wouldn’t have been able to know just how badly he’d wounded his quarry. Not for sure.

			God knew Luther was out in the middle of nowhere, in a dense wilderness that had swallowed up more than one careless hiker and quite a few federal fugitives, never to be seen again. Even with dogs and daylight, tracking someone across this treacherous terrain would be difficult; making the attempt at night was something even the locals would consider suicidal.

			But he wouldn’t want to leave a body lying around.

			Grim, Luther pushed himself away from the tree and continued on, using a thick broken limb he had found as a rough crutch. The terrain didn’t exactly lend itself to hobbling along with a nice, steady rhythm. Or any rhythm at all. Just keeping himself upright was taking more effort and energy than he liked, given the distance he had to cover in order to reach safety: the tiny mountain town he had skirted on his way up here. He had judged it to be about five miles from Jacoby’s cabin as the crow flew.

			He wasn’t a crow and couldn’t even begin to travel in a straight line, not with the treacherous terrain and all the obstacles of the dense forest. It wasn’t like it was just a gentle slope downward. There were ridges and switchbacks and deep gullies gouged out of the mountain by spring and summer rains. There were boulders taller than he was, taller than a house, and dense thickets of briars and other foliage.

			Working his way past or over or around took time, and it ate up distance. The ground he’d have to cover probably included an extra mile or two at least, and that was assuming he could even last long enough to make the journey.

			His mind instinctively calculated, and he tried to ignore the odds it offered him for success.

			Never mind the odds. Take stock. You’re wounded, but it isn’t mortal and you can still use the leg. For now, at least. Dawn is hours away, so even if you can’t reach the town, you have time to put more distance between you and the maniac with the gun and every reason to want you dead.

			Okay. Not too bad.

			Except that safety is . . . not close. You’ve lost a lot of blood and need medical attention. And you lost most of your gear, including the water, in that first bad fall, which was stupid, but let’s not dwell on it. You have your weapon but maybe . . . what? . . . four rounds left in the clip?

			The bastard would probably come after him loaded for bear.

			Bears. Don’t think about bears.

			They could smell blood. And hadn’t he heard something about an attempt to repopulate the area with once-threatened-with-extinction wolves? Or was that farther west?

			Much farther. No wolves around here. Maybe wild dogs. Even cougars have been reported. I think. Bobcats. Certainly bears. Too early to be hibernating. I think. Damn bears.

			He paused again to rest, leaning against another tree, and mentally took himself to task for letting his mind linger on things there was no sense worrying about unless and until he had to.

			He had the uneasy feeling that he’d lost more blood than he had originally thought, and that was why he was having trouble focusing. Why he was light-headed and his breathing was more like panting.

			Why he had to fight the urge to slide down the tree and take a real break. Maybe even a nap.

			Oh, man, you are so screwed—

			“Taking the scenic route?”




Haven

			Maggie Garrett rubbed the nape of her neck absently, then sighed when her husband’s fingers replaced her own. “Careful, or you’ll put me to sleep,” she told him wryly.

			“You need to sleep,” John Garrett replied. “By my count, you’ve been up forty-eight hours at least.”

			“I took a nap.”

			“Twenty minutes maybe. Not nearly enough.”

			“I’m okay.”

			“No, you aren’t. You’re never okay when one of your chicks is out of the nest.”

			A little laugh escaped her. “One of my chicks? I think there’s a better nickname for a six-foot-four-inch former Marine. And I think he’d think so too.”

			John came around the desk and rested a hip on the corner so he could face her. They were in Maggie’s office rather than the central work area of the sprawling building that was both home and business for them, and they were alone. “Haven operatives are all your chicks, especially when one comes up missing.”

			“He should have checked in by now. He should have checked in hours ago.”

			“Given the terrain, I doubt he could get a signal out.” John paused, then asked deliberately, “Not a conventional signal, at least. Have you sensed something else?”

			Maggie frowned. “I don’t have a very strong connection with Luther. It makes him uncomfortable. He’s fine with the telepaths, but since I pick up on emotions, and he’s still buttoned up tight . . .”

			“He’d rather keep his feelings to himself. Okay, I get that. With all the shit he’s been through, I doubt most people would be eager to open up. But you’re still sensing something?”

			“It’s just a vague feeling that something is wrong. Sort of a ghostly echo of pain.”

			“Physical pain?”

			“I think so. Hard to be sure, though.”

			“Then probably not mortal pain.”

			“No, probably not.”

			“It was a simple enough assignment,” John said, in a thoughtful tone. “Granted, our information put his target deep in the middle of nowhere, but hiking in there and finding him shouldn’t have been much trouble for Luther, considering his tracking and survival skills on top of his . . . psychic radar. All he had to do was get his hands on that last car we’re certain Jacoby drove, however briefly. After that, it was only a matter of tracking him, then settling down to observe from a distance for long enough to make sure the guy wasn’t going anywhere, then withdraw and report in. We turn the information over to Nash, and he has the location of their escaped fugitive. Our job is done. The feds can go in and get him.”

			“Yeah.” Maggie was still frowning.

			“What?”

			“Well . . . didn’t it strike you as a little odd that Agent Nash came to us?”

			“He checked out,” John reminded her.

			“I know he did. I know. And it made sense that, working pretty much alone out of a small field office in Tennessee, Nash didn’t have the resources to launch a manhunt when he couldn’t even narrow down the area in thousands of acres of wilderness.”

			“Didn’t have the skills to do much on his own, either. He’s pretty obviously a city boy.”

			Maggie nodded. “And the report from the Forest Service was clear enough; without a lot more information, they couldn’t narrow down the area enough to search effectively themselves, especially since the search dogs lost the scent about a hundred yards from that abandoned car. It was pretty much straight up a mountain from there, and what towns exist in the area are scattered, tiny, and have a well-deserved reputation for minding their own business and not being especially welcoming or forthcoming to outsiders. Especially outsiders with badges.”

			“Remote doesn’t begin to describe them,” John agreed. “In an age of instant communication, they certainly do represent almost a return to simpler times.”

			Shifting to betray a rare sign of unease, Maggie said, “There are reports of survivalist and militia groups in that wilderness. Very credible reports. Some of the groups have been up there for years, and they aren’t just unwelcoming to visitors; they’re actively hostile.”

			“Luther has too much experience not to be able to avoid that kind of potential trouble.”

			“I know, I know. But I wish now I hadn’t sent him in alone.”

			“One man alone, skilled and accustomed to rough terrain, could cover the distance faster and get in and out with the least chance of being detected. We agreed, and so did Luther.”

			She nodded. “Yeah, it makes perfect tactical sense. And we had to get someone in close, since none of our operatives have the ability to pick up on Jacoby from a distance.”

			“It’s the sort of thing our operatives do, love. And word has spread in the last few years; we have several active cases pretty much all the time.”

			Maggie finally voiced what had been nagging at her. “Why didn’t Nash go to Bishop? That would have been the natural thing for a federal agent to do, to keep it inside the FBI. Why turn to a civilian organization when he had to know about the SCU?”

			“Bad blood?” John suggested after a moment. “Bishop has made more than his fair share of enemies, and at least a few inside the bureau have been heard expressing resentment over the relative autonomy the Special Crimes Unit enjoys. Or maybe Nash simply didn’t want his superiors to know he needed outside help to complete his assignment.”

			With a slight grimace, Maggie said, “I’d almost rather it was the former. For a federal agent to use us and then claim the credit in locating an escaped felon is just so . . .”

			“Underhanded? We always request anonymity anyway; maybe he knew that going in.”

			“Maybe. Still.”

			If there was anything John Garrett had learned in the last few years, it was to respect his wife’s feelings, however vague they might seem. He leaned forward to kiss her, then said, “Well, we can’t report anything to Agent Nash until Luther reports in to us. But we can call Bishop.”



* * *



LUTHER FOUND HIMSELF staring down the business end of a shotgun, all too clear in the moonlight. He actually had to force himself to lift his gaze from the barrels and focus on the woman holding the weapon.

			“Taking the scenic route?” she repeated, her tone calm.

			The angle made it impossible for him to see her face; she wore jeans and a warm jacket with a fur-trimmed hood pulled up.

			He envied her the hood; he thought his ears might be frozen.

			If he’d had two solid legs under him, Luther probably would have handled the situation differently, but as it was he judged he had little choice. The light-headedness was getting worse. “Ran into a little trouble hiking,” he said.

			In the same calm tone, she said, “Yeah, people run into bullets all the time in these mountains. Especially miles off the hiking trails and on private land. Posted private land. Anybody comes way up here to live, they generally prefer to be left alone.”

			“A simple ‘Go away’ would have been enough.”

			“That’s what the NO TRESPASSING signs were for. Or did you manage to miss all of them?”

			He decided, after backtracking a bit mentally, that he had missed the important point, and added, “How do you know it’s a bullet wound? I might have fallen or . . . something.”

			“Looks like you’re about to fall on your ass,” she said. Then added, “That gun come with a badge?”

			He wondered how she could see his handgun, since it was in a shoulder holster inside his zipped jacket. “Sort of.”

			The barrels of the shotgun lifted until they were pointed at his face. “Either you have a badge or you don’t.”

			“Private investigator,” he said, hoping he wasn’t tripping over syllables in his haste to get the words out. “Licensed. Hired to locate an escaped fugitive.”

			“Escaped from where?”

			“Uh . . . Virginia. Federal custody in Virginia.”

			And they sent a civilian after him?”

			“Not at first. I mean . . . there were state cops and FBI and maybe marshals, I dunno. Bunch of people. Tracking dogs. But he gave them all the slip. And in these mountains . . . Well, fugitives have gone missing pretty much forever.”

			“So you were hired.”

			“I’m good at this sort of thing,” he said, wryly aware of the irony that drove him to add, “usually.”

			But all she said was, “And did you locate him?”

			He had to think about that for a minute, aware of the vague notion that just because she had a gun in his face it didn’t mean he had to tell her everything. In fact, it actually meant he shouldn’t tell her anything.

			Name, rank, serial number.

			He remembered the drill.

			“Yeah,” he heard himself say. “But I was just supposed to find him and report in, that’s all. Sneaky bastard slipped around behind me when I was waiting for it to get dark enough for me to leave without being seen. After that, I was just trying to get away from him and his dogs.”

			“Cole Jacoby.”

			He had the odd, fuzzy thought that she wasn’t providing information so much as probing to find out what he knew. Except . . . he also felt she didn’t have to do that. For some reason. What reason? “You know that because you’re neighbors?”

			“That. There aren’t many of us up here this time of year. And I heard his dogs. Around here, we usually keep our dogs in at night—unless there’s something we need to run off.”

			“Which is why you came out here?”

			“I also heard shots. And the whole area is posted no hunting. Besides which, it wasn’t rifle fire I heard.”

			Luther wondered why she was now aiming the shotgun above his head, and realized only then that he was sliding slowly down the tree at his back. His legs felt like rubber.

			“Shots. Uh-huh. Those would have been him shooting at me, and me . . . returning fire. I wasn’t supposed to shoot him, so . . . I didn’t try to hit him. He didn’t . . . grant me . . . the same . . . courtesy.” He shook his head to try to clear his vision. “Jesus, you’re tall.”

			A sigh misted in the air in front of the face he still couldn’t make out, and she lowered the shotgun until the barrels pointed downward. “No, you’re tall. And heavy. And it’s going to be a bitch getting you back to my place.”

			“Are we going to your place? That . . . sounds like . . . a plan.”

			“A plan that would work better if you didn’t pass out along the way.”

			“Me? Pass out? Nah, I’m . . . fine. Just need to rest a little . . . while. And . . . I’ll be . . . good as . . . new.”

			She bent toward him, and he tried really hard to see her face. But all he caught was the almost eerie gleam of her eyes.

			You’ve got a ways to go before you’re as good as new, pal.

			It was the last thing he remembered, wondering if that had been his thought—or hers.





TWO




Haven




“Bishop.”

			“You’re on speaker,” Maggie told him. “I’m here with John. Sorry to call so late. Although I have no idea whether it’s late where you are.”

			Being Bishop, he didn’t answer the implied question. “Let me guess. One of your operatives hasn’t checked in.”

			Maggie exchanged looks with her husband. “That didn’t sound like a guess,” she said. “You have an agent in Tennessee?”

			“For a while now.”

			This time, it was John who said, “Agent Nash led us to believe his escaped fugitive was a . . . recent problem.”

			“Probably was recent, to him.” Noah Bishop, chief of the Special Crimes Unit, sounded as calm as usual. “The problem part, I mean. Cole Jacoby was officially in custody and halfway across Virginia two weeks ago. Neither of the agents responsible for him could quite explain how he managed to slip his leash. In fact, they had a number of unexplained gaps in their memories. Lengthy gaps.”

			“Both of them?” Maggie asked. “Both missing the same memories?”

			“The same time gaps, at least. No physical injuries, and nothing showed up on the medical tests, including any signs of drugs or other known toxins. But they’re experienced agents, and they’d never lost a prisoner during a transfer before Jacoby.”

			“SCU?” Maggie asked the question even knowing the answer.

			“No. We wouldn’t oversee or be part of the transfer of a prisoner unless he was psychic—and we knew it.”

			“I’m liking this less and less,” John said. “You suspect Jacoby is psychic? That’s why you sent an agent to Tennessee?”

			“By some means we don’t yet understand, the memories of two experienced agents were . . . tampered with. The vehicle was clean, no sign it was bumped or run off the road or otherwise stopped. All the prints inside and on the doors belonged to the agents or the prisoner, which is pretty strong evidence no one else was involved. And yet at some point during what should have been a routine prisoner transfer, with their prisoner safely cuffed in the backseat, two experienced agents lost that prisoner—and a chunk of time. Someone or something was responsible for that. If it was Jacoby, I need to know how he managed it.”

			Maggie spoke slowly. “Because we don’t have an agent or operative capable of manipulating memories or imposing their will on others, not psychically.”

			“Exactly.”

			“How did you place him in Tennessee?” John wanted to know. “Was Nash straight about that?”

			“The manhunt was already under way when I was officially notified about it,” Bishop said, without commenting on the second question. “Standard operating procedure, since we were expecting him. And the only thing that stuck out a bit about this particular fugitive was that he didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, lingering in the general area where he escaped, around Arlington, long enough to be spotted more than once, always in a different car. And then there’s the dogs.”

			Maggie and John exchanged looks, and she was the one who asked, “Dogs?”

			“Yeah. The last time we believe he was spotted, the witness swore he had at least three large dogs in the car with him. It was only after that, that he picked up his pace and left the area, neatly avoiding checkpoints or any law enforcement contact despite the BOLO out on him. He ditched cars a couple more times, and despite his countermeasure of removing or destroying any GPS units, the cars were found with relative speed and ease. And forensics did find dog hair as well as his prints and DNA in the abandoned cars.”

			“Not exactly worried about being nailed for grand theft auto,” John mused. “Or escaping custody.”

			“If he does have a ten-million-dollar stash from his last heist, probably not.”

			Maggie asked, “Do we know where he got the dogs?”

			“An informant who shared a prison cell with him for a short time claims he talked almost continually about his dogs, dogs he raised from pups. Said he had a trusted pal on the outside taking care of them until he got out. So far, we haven’t been able to identify said pal, though he must have been within the area where Jacoby spent the most time after his escape and before he finally took off.” Bishop paused a moment, then added dryly, “My guess is that once he was paid for looking after the dogs, and undoubtedly paid well, he headed straight for an island somewhere with no extradition with the U.S., there to live happily ever after.”

			“Do people still do that?” Maggie wondered aloud, but absently.

			“I like to hope so,” Bishop responded.

			John kept them on track. “But Jacoby took the time to get his dogs. Even knowing every law enforcement agency in the East had to be looking for him. And then he headed for the mountains.”

			“So it appears. Despite changing cars a couple more times, Jacoby was traced as far as the Tennessee state line. No reports in the area of a stolen car, no dealer in the area has any record of selling a car to him. And the shady dealers were all under close observation because we had an escaped felon in the area. I doubt he went anywhere near them. The feeling was, he planned ahead, and planned well. He must have had a vehicle stashed and waiting for him, possibly courtesy of the same friend who kept his dogs for him while he was locked up. The vehicle had to be a Jeep or truck, maybe even a Humvee, definitely a serious four-wheel-drive. Fully gassed up and ready to go. Tracking dogs followed a trail through rough terrain to an old logging road headed up into the mountains, then lost the scent.”

			John said, “I gather the road was explored.”

			“For about a mile. Until it was blocked by several trees. Big trees, felled recently by hand, not by nature. Exploring on foot farther in, the search team found more trees blocking the way, a road growing less and less worthy of the name, and terrain so rough the rangers claimed only highly experienced and very athletic hikers could keep going.”

			“No sign of his vehicle, though.”

			“No sign.”

			“Decoy?”

			“Maybe. Maybe he created a diversion and took another path into the mountains. In any case, as per procedure, that’s when the nearest field office would have been notified.”

			“Nash,” John said. “Was he told what you suspected?” Like Maggie, he asked a question already knowing the answer.

			“No. The official report listed Jacoby as an escaped felon, a bank robber possibly armed. Which is true—as far as it goes. He’s suspected of half a dozen fairly minor heists in the last ten years or so, but was never charged for lack of evidence. He was known to use a gun, but had never to our knowledge harmed anyone, or even fired the gun. But this heist was different. One, he was—rather uncharacteristically—caught on camera and easily identified. And two, the fact that he’d stolen ten million dollars still unaccounted for made him a very valuable fugitive indeed.”

			John mused, “Must have been some bank if they had ten million on hand.”

			“Yes,” Bishop said. “As it happened, this bank was a hub for other banks and for various investment firms. Nine-tenths of that money was scheduled to be transferred to a Federal Reserve bank the day following that of the robbery.”

			Still musing, John said, “And Jacoby just happened to hit it on the right day.” It was a question.

			“The theory is, he had someone on the inside. Investigation of that possibility is ongoing.”

			“You don’t believe it.”

			“No. Not the way Jacoby works. Which begs the question . . .”

			“How did he know so much money would be there?” John finished.

			“He has some computer skills. Never known as a hacker, but maybe he didn’t waste his time inside. That money should have been protected by layers of electronic security, but nothing’s foolproof and we all know security is usually at best an illusion; if someone wants in badly enough, and has the skills, they get in.”

			Realizing, Maggie said, “That’s the kind of skill even more valuable than bank robbery itself. Skill the law enforcement community would want to understand. And he wouldn’t give up easily. They were bringing him to you for questioning?”

			“To the SCU, and, yes, because traditional means of interrogation had netted them exactly nothing. Normally, we would have gone to him for the interview, but he was being transferred near here because he’d been making noises about trading the location of the money for a reduced sentence and better accommodations. Nobody really wanted to make that deal, but judging by the security video evidence and as far as we could otherwise determine, Jacoby hadn’t worked with a partner who might have talked, assuming we were able to locate him or her. The investigation into the robbery had turned up zip for leads, so he was and is still our only link to the money.”

			Bothered, Maggie said, “If he could manipulate someone else’s mind, I’m surprised he didn’t try it sooner.”

			“He may have tried,” Bishop reminded her. “And failed. Or succeeded in some way we haven’t discovered yet. That may well have been the way he was able to choose the right bank on the right day. And that could have been his first measurable success. We have no way of knowing for sure. If there’s anything our experiences have taught us, it’s that even with training and practice many of us can control our abilities only erratically.”

			Practically, John said, “Or maybe he just bided his time and used what leverage he had to manipulate the situation until the odds were more in his favor; he was alone with only a couple of agents and had a better chance of escaping.”

			“Maybe so,” Bishop agreed. “In any case, he escaped. He didn’t make the Ten Most Wanted list because he’s not believed to be a violent criminal, but recapturing him could go a long way toward promoting an agent stuck in a backwater field office.”

			“Which,” John said, “explains why Nash called us instead of the SCU. We don’t need or want the public credit for that sort of success, but if another agent or unit within the FBI did the work, it would certainly be known inside the bureau.”

			“Yes,” Bishop said.

			Maggie said, “And since you’ve been your usual secretive self, it wouldn’t be in any of the reports or alerts that you suspected Jacoby of being psychic.”

			Dryly, Bishop said, “I generally keep suspicion of possible psychic activity out of reports unless and until I’m certain. And sometimes even then. There are, after all, still some in—and out of—the bureau who refer to us as the Spooky Crimes Unit.”

			“You knew it’d be an uphill battle for respect,” John reminded him with a trace of amusement.

			“Yeah. And a long one. In any case, the case paperwork on Nash, the reports and stats on his crimes and on him as an escaped felon, contain nothing indicating any interest from the SCU.”

			“Yet you have an agent in Tennessee.”

			“We had reason to believe he’d head in that direction.”

			“Before he escaped?” Maggie asked curiously.

			“When he escaped. Almost immediately,” Bishop replied, unusually forthcoming with information. Maggie frowned slightly.

			“He headed into a wilderness,” John reminded, in the patient tone of one accustomed to dealing with the SCU’s infamously enigmatic chief. “Into a state our information has him with absolutely no connection to. No family, no friends, no past job, nothing. Far as any discoverable records go, he never set foot in the state before. And you managed to place an agent close to where he’d eventually settle?”

			“Within five miles, I believe. Possibly even closer. And we’re reasonably sure he’s hidden out in that general area before.”

			“Information not worth sharing?” John’s voice remained patient, even as his wife smiled at him wryly.

			“Not until now. Your operative needed to be there. Even more, he needed to locate Jacoby himself, at least initially.”

			“Some things have to happen just the way they happen,” Maggie said.

			“Yes.”

			“Life lesson or psychic lesson?” John asked, honestly curious.

			“Six of one.” Briskly, Bishop continued, “I have an agent in place with an excellent cover story that can be maintained almost indefinitely if necessary. An agent with specific instructions to observe for a time sufficient to reveal anything unusual, and then report back so that we’ll know before he’s officially approached by non-SCU law enforcement agents whether Cole Jacoby has any psychic ability.”

			“And if he does?” John asked slowly. “If he has enough psychic ability to affect your agent?”

			Imperturbable, Bishop replied, “Then he’ll be a very, very special psychic indeed. And Nash will be stuck in that field office awhile longer.”

			“Because Jacoby will become an SCU target.”

			“He’s already an SCU target. We just aren’t sure—yet—what sort of threat he might pose, how much manpower it’ll take to get him, and whether we need to intervene officially or leave it to Nash and his people. The initial readings on Jacoby were . . . indeterminate.”

			“Is that as unusual as it sounds?” John wanted to know.

			“It’s troubling,” Bishop admitted. “Getting away from the agents transporting him, and then making it into a wilderness where it was virtually impossible to follow him, took careful planning and considerable cool-headed reasoning, but since then his observed actions have been erratic. To say the least.”

			“Erratic how?”

			“Let’s just say he hasn’t been very welcoming even to innocent game hunters just passing by his place. He’s called attention to himself, which I would have guessed isn’t part of his original plan. Locals are talking about him. And insular though they may be, nobody wants a dangerous armed stranger up on the mountain near their town.”

			“Local law enforcement?” John asked.

			“Not moved to intervene, so far. But that could change.” Bishop paused, then added, “Wherever he hid his stash, it isn’t where he is now, or at least we don’t believe it is. And yet he’s become aggressively protective of the remote cabin he rented up in the mountains.”

			John and Maggie exchanged glances, both silently hearing the admission that whether he had known before sending his agent, Bishop most certainly knew now exactly where Cole Jacoby was staying. But neither of them commented on that.

			“He is a wanted fugitive,” Maggie pointed out. “I’d expect him to be protective of his location.”

			“Protective in very specific ways,” Bishop said without saying much of anything at all.

			John sighed. “Well, I know better than to ask. You’ll tell us whatever it is you’re holding back if and when you’re ready to. But can you at least put Maggie’s mind to rest and tell her Luther is all right?”

			“He’s being taken care of as we speak,” Bishop replied.



* * *



“REMIND ME AGAIN why we’re doing this?” Hollis Templeton’s voice wasn’t exactly nervous, except around the edges.

			Her partner, Reese DeMarco, perfectly aware of the nerves, answered patiently. “Because you told Bishop weeks ago that you wanted to learn to interact with spirits outside our investigations, without the pressures of chasing bad guys.”

			“Yeah, but—”

			“And our options to do so openly and without our badges are rather limited. Either you’re some kind of paranormal investigator like we were in Baron Hollow in July, which would involve carting along a lot of equipment we don’t need, or else you bill yourself as a medium and offer your services to allow loved ones to talk with the dead.”

			“But a séance? Seriously?”

			“At least Bishop didn’t ask you to wear a turban or a dozen jangling fake gold bracelets.”

			Hollis turned her head and glared at him. “You’re not helping.”

			DeMarco kept his attention on his driving as he navigated a rather winding mountain country blacktop in the waning twilight. “Sorry. But you did ask, Hollis. And it’s a good idea to explore the limits of your abilities whenever we have time between cases.”

			“In theory,” she muttered.

			“Well, we don’t have too many ways to explore, to learn to control,” he said. “We spend hours in the lab whenever the researchers come up with new tests, but we all know psychics don’t do well in lab conditions, so we seldom learn anything new about ourselves or our abilities. And then we’re in the field on cases where hunting down the bad guys and staying alive in the process is a little more imperative than learning how to talk to a spirit not involved in the investigation.”

			Hollis was silent for a moment, then said, “It was that girl in the hospital when we were waiting to see if Diana would pull through. Wandering the halls, literally a lost soul. It’s been six months since that investigation, and I still can’t get her out of my mind. When she asked me if there was supposed to be a light, I didn’t have an answer for her. Or the time to try to help her find the answers she needed.”

			“And so, we do this,” DeMarco said patiently. “You talk to spirits without the pressure of an investigation and try to help them. And if the client wants a séance as the setting, so be it.”

			“Easy for you to say,” Hollis muttered. “Listen, I’m not going to do the candle thing, or hold hands around the table, or any of that stuff. Certainly no Ouija board; those things are dangerous. And I won’t pretend to go into a trance. If I have to do a séance, it’ll be my way.”

			“Suits me. Though it might disappoint the client. According to what background info we were given, she’s had readings from every psychic and would-be psychic in about a dozen places in and around Tennessee. Even went all the way to California a couple of months back.”

			“Which hasn’t made her brother-in-law very happy. Yeah, I remember from the brief. He thinks she’s wasting money at best and being robbed blind at worst. Not exactly what you’d call a believer.”

			“Something else we’ve run into before and will again; might as well practice dealing with that too. In any case, our information is there were no kids and her husband’s brother stands to inherit as the only Alexander left. Maybe he just wants to protect what he believes he has coming to him; some of those psychics charged pretty steep fees.”

			“I’m not charging anything at all.”

			“Yeah, but I’m betting the brother-in-law doesn’t believe that. He’ll be looking for the hook whatever you say, just waiting for whatever it is you intend to use to draw his sister-in-law into your con and eventually relieve her of some of her—and his—money.”

			Hollis frowned. “I hate it when anything is about money. I’m also a little worried about whether I can see this spirit at all. He’s been gone—what?—nearly two years?”

			“Nearly.”

			“So maybe he’s gone on to wherever most spirits go eventually. Despite popular belief, most of them don’t seem to stick around very long.”

			“We’ll find out soon enough,” DeMarco said, turning the car in between two rather imposing brick pillars flanking a brick driveway that wound off into the distance.

			Glum, Hollis said, “Dammit, even the driveway cost a fortune. Or was laid back when brick was relatively cheap to use and labor even cheaper. I bet this is an old house. Filled with history. And spirits.”

			“Family home for about a century and a half, if I remember.”

			“Lovely. Probably lots of feuding went on over the decades. A philandering husband or cheating wife caught and . . . dispatched. A suicide or three. An axe murderer two generations ago.”

			With a slight smile, DeMarco said, “Don’t recall mention of an axe murderer.”

			“He probably got away with it,” Hollis said, still gloomy. “No bodies found, right? Right. So he buried them in the rose garden or cut them up into little pieces and tossed them into that river we passed a mile or so back. Or fed them to pigs.”

			“Ghoulish,” he noted.

			“I’m going to talk to the dead. I can be ghoulish if I want to. It does cast a whole new light on bacon, though, doesn’t it? I mean, that pigs are omnivores and will eat anything. It’s why I eat turkey bacon. Mostly.”

			Ignoring the tangent, DeMarco said, “It’s not as easy as most people would suppose to dismember a body, especially with an axe. Takes a lot of muscle and quite a bit of skill, never mind making a hell of a mess it’d be difficult to hide or cover up afterward—”

			“All right, all right.” Hollis turned her head to stare at him, frowning. “Why don’t you just tell me when I’m being an unreasonable pain in the ass?”

			“Where’s the fun in that?”

			Hollis couldn’t help but laugh a little when he sent her one of his quick, curiously crooked smiles. “Yeah, yeah. Your idea of a nice break between cases is to babysit me.”

			“Not exactly the way I think of it,” DeMarco replied, adding immediately, “If there are any spirits at the Alexander family home, they’ll probably be waiting and ready for us. For you. You’re broadcasting.”

			She sighed, perfectly aware that controlling that particular psychic ability was not exactly one of her strengths—and useless to even try whenever she was in the company of a telepath as powerful as DeMarco. “Emotions or thoughts?”

			“A jumble of both. Hollis, you can do this, you know.”

			“Yeah? What if another spirit asks me why there’s no light to guide them—wherever it is they’re supposed to go? What do I tell them?”

			“Follow your instincts. They’re actually pretty good.”

			Hollis didn’t want to admit out loud that she found it reassuring to hear that from him. Then again, since he was a telepath and she couldn’t turn off her psychic Broadcast Full Wattage button, he probably knew anyway.

			Dammit.

			She returned her attention forward just as the car rounded a curve and their destination loomed unnervingly large and very well lit a hundred yards or so ahead.

			“Jesus,” she muttered. “It’s a castle. It has turrets.”

			“Only two,” DeMarco murmured.

			Hollis was too busy dealing with her sense of intimidation and unease to laugh as she studied the house looming ever larger as they approached. Stone, some sections of it covered with ivy, numerous windows with the small panes that usually signaled considerable age, and a huge, grand front door that looked as if it would require a draft horse to pull it open. There were at least three floors, at least two wings in addition to the main section of the house, the two turrets DeMarco had noted—and battlements. Or, at least, what Hollis tentatively identified as battlements. Walkways high up between the turrets at roof level designed for guards to walk and scan the countryside for danger, like the threat of some army storming the place.

			Which was very weird for an American structure, very few of which had experienced a threat of that kind since the Alamo.

			Besides which, this was a home, not a fortress. She hoped.

			“Jesus,” she repeated. “Who are these people?”

			“Old money,” DeMarco replied succinctly. “And I’m guessing whoever built this place had a lengthy European trip behind them that inspired this sort of architecture.”

			“No kidding. Also a family that made damned sure of their privacy. They might not have a moat around the place, but it took us nearly an hour on decent blacktop roads to get here from the main highway, and thirty minutes on that from the nearest town; imagine how long it would have taken anyone a hundred years ago.”

			“I doubt they got many visitors,” DeMarco agreed. “And those who came probably stayed a week or longer, even a month. Even a summer. It was common among people of that time—and this sort of wealth.”

			“Damn, you don’t think they’ll ask us to stay, do you? If that isn’t a haunted house, I don’t know spirits at all. Other than a hospital, I can’t think of a place I’d feel less inclined to spend the night.”

			“I suppose that depends on how long the séance lasts,” DeMarco said practically. “It’s nearly dark, and by the time you’re done it’s likely to be fairly late. Depending on how pleased our hostess is with her reading, always assuming you can make contact, if you can’t tell her what she wants to hear, I bet she’ll want more than one reading.”

			“And if I can tell her what she wants to hear?”

			“In that case, she may try to hire you to be her personal psychic.”

			With considerable feeling, Hollis said, “Thank God I already have a job.”

			DeMarco parked the car a dozen yards from the front door and said, “Well, right now your other job demands that you try your hand at contacting a spirit, probably only because his nearest and dearest wants to know that he’s at peace—except for missing her as much as she misses him, of course.”

			“Cynic.”

			“Realist. Come on, let’s go.”

			Hollis gathered herself and prepared to get out of the car but couldn’t help muttering a final, “Oh, man, I know I’m going to regret this.”

			And it was, really, more than a hunch.




Haven

			Maggie Garrett said, “So you’re certain your agent can protect himself. Herself?”

			“Herself,” Bishop replied.

			“An especially strong shield?”

			“And instinctive, or at least unconscious. She doesn’t have to think about it to block, maybe even repel, energy. To most of our other psychics, telepaths included, behind her shield she reads as a sort of . . . null field. As if she’s not really there.”

			Maggie murmured, “Psychic stealth mode.”

			John said, “Now that sounds creepy.”

			“It can be,” Bishop allowed, adding dryly, “Not many people can sneak up on me. She can. But that seems to be more a side effect of her shield than a separate psychic ability. Her real strength is in detecting, measuring, and possibly repelling negative energy. And when she encounters it, she does more than detect it, she becomes hyperaware.”

			“What about positive energy?”

			“When she lets down her shield—which she has to consciously do—most of our telepaths have been able to communicate with her easily, and with complete thoughts rather than just snippets or impressions, so she’s receptive to positive energy. A small percentage of our telepaths couldn’t send or receive. Anything, even though her shield was down. We’re not sure if it was due to their abilities or hers. Or just one of those days when one or all of them weren’t able to control their abilities.”

			“She’s also a telepath?”

			“Yeah, she is a telepath, though it seems secondary to both her shielding abilities and her abilities to detect and repel negative energy. So far, at any rate.”

			Maggie said, “Three distinct abilities?”

			“More like two,” Bishop replied. “Our theory is that her mind developed the shield to protect itself from negative energy, so those two abilities are likely connected. The telepathy began as her primary ability.”

			“And the others developed only when she was exposed to negative energy?”

			“I believe so,” Bishop said.

			Maggie waited a moment, then said, “You’re not going to tell us when and how that happened?”

			“That’s her story, part of her history. Not mine to share.”

			John sighed, even though he was well aware, and personally grateful, that Bishop kept the secrets of many if not most of the psychics he dealt with—and that he shared such information with others only when it was absolutely necessary. “As usual, we have more questions than answers about an agent or operative’s abilities.”

			“Some things don’t change,” Maggie said, then added immediately, “Bishop, did you know Nash had contacted Haven?”

			“Yeah.”

			“But not from him.”

			“No.”

			“Have you told him you have an agent in place?”

			Bishop replied, “Unless you’ve told him differently, he doesn’t know Cole Jacoby has been located.”

			Maggie looked at her husband with raised brows. “Did he answer my question?”

			“Not exactly.”

			Relenting, Bishop said, “No, I haven’t told Nash—or anyone else outside the SCU—that I have an agent in Tennessee and that she located Jacoby days ago. The instant Nash is informed of Jacoby’s location, he’ll mount a full-scale operation to get his fugitive, with the director’s blessing; everybody wants that ten million found. I’m less concerned with recovering the stolen money than I am with determining the extent of Jacoby’s psychic abilities. For now, at least.”

			“And she doesn’t know yet?” Maggie asked.

			“Not as of her last report hours ago. She says the whole area around him is dark, and she didn’t mean it was because he’s in a cabin in the woods. Something out there, something in or around Jacoby, is producing a lot of negative energy, but so far she hasn’t risked getting closer to try to figure out whether it’s Jacoby—or something or someone else.”

			“Energy with a purpose?” Maggie asked.

			“Also something we don’t yet know. But negative energy is usually being channeled or otherwise controlled, especially if it’s confined to one area or person.”

			Mildly, John said, “You might have warned us the armed felon we were hired to find was also likely to be psychic. Or was it part of your master plan to have a Haven operative on the scene?” The question wasn’t as mocking as the words made it seem.

			More practically, Maggie asked, “Is that why you sent only one agent instead of the usual team? Because we were sending an operative?”

			Again not exactly answering the question, Bishop said, “I knew Luther would be the operative chosen to go in. And he needs to be there.”

			“Why?” Maggie asked.

			“To save my agent’s life. After she saves his, of course.”





THREE




Owen Alexander scowled at the newcomers he undoubtedly didn’t regard as guests, even generations of “good breeding” failing to overcome his open hostility. “Anna claims you don’t charge a fee,” he said the moment the door of the impressive library closed behind the equally impressive, old-world butler who had escorted them here and announced them.

			Hollis was still trying to get over being announced in a private home and said almost absently, “No, I never charge fees.”

			“Then why do it?” he demanded.

			She looked at him, momentarily startled. The literal truth, that she was an FBI agent trying to get a handle on her abilities and figure out how best to use them in investigations, wasn’t something she was free to share—exactly—so she said, “I . . . want to help people.”

			“By lying to them?”

			DeMarco shifted his weight almost imperceptibly, perfectly aware that Hollis had a temper and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

			Her blue eyes narrowed as she studied Alexander. “As far as I know, no spirit has ever lied to me, so I’ve never passed on a lie. They seem to be beyond that sort of petty human thing once they’ve died.”

			Alexander blinked, clearly startled. “Most of your sort say ‘passed’ or something equally euphemistic,” he said.

			“Kindly don’t lump me into a group, Mr. Alexander. I also don’t use tarot cards, crystal balls, tea leaves, read palms, go into trances, or insist anybody hold hands around a candlelit table. I don’t ask for birth dates so I can use what most people know about their horoscopes to get a few easy and pseudo ‘hits’ without really trying. I just utilize the natural energy of my mind, which happens to be sensitive to a specific frequency, and use that tool to open a door so spirits can come through and talk to the living. Assuming they want to. I often wonder why they bother.”

			Like now.

			She didn’t say it, but it hung in the air between her narrowed gaze and Alexander’s glare.

			DeMarco eyed the two of them, noting the disparity in size between Hollis’s slender, almost frail-looking form and Alexander’s tall, bulky, just-this-side-of-corpulent self, and silently bet on Hollis to win the standoff.

			In the end, there wasn’t really a winner, because the door opened and a middle-aged woman hurried in. She was lovely in a slightly faded way, dressed in something rather flowing and filmy that to DeMarco’s mind would have been better suited to June than October—and possibly thirty or forty years ago to boot.

			But what did he know about women’s fashion? Less than nothing.

			“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to greet you,” she said, a little breathless. “Owen, honestly, haven’t you even asked them to sit down?” Before he could respond, she ushered Hollis and DeMarco to a long, elegant silk sofa and sat down in a chair at right angles and nearest to Hollis. “Thomas should be back with coffee any time now.”

			Thomas, DeMarco, reflected, was clearly the butler; Owen hadn’t spoken a word to the man.

			“I’m Anna Alexander. But, of course, you know that. Thank you so much for coming.”

			Owen Alexander sat down on an identical sofa facing the visitors, his scowl gone but displeasure lingering around a grim mouth. “I thought you were resting,” he said to his sister-in-law. “I didn’t see any reason to disturb you. They’re early.”

			DeMarco said calmly, “The roads were better than we were led to believe. We got an early start just in case.”

			“You’re very welcome here,” Anna Alexander assured him, her gaze flitting to Hollis almost hesitantly. “Forgive me, Ms. Templeton—”

			“Hollis, please. And he’s Reese. We aren’t very formal.” She glanced around at the huge, formal library, her mouth twisting slightly.

			“Then I hope you’ll call me Anna. And my brother-in-law is Owen.” She didn’t look at him, but kept her gaze on Hollis. “Forgive me, Hollis, but I was told your methods of summoning Spirit were somewhat unorthodox, so I wasn’t certain how to prepare for the séance. I wasn’t even certain which room would be best.”

			Hollis and DeMarco exchanged quick glances, no telepathy necessary between them to share the realization that Anna Alexander had indeed spent a great deal of time with mediums—and those who claimed to be. Enough, at least, to pick up the lingo.

			Clearing her throat, Hollis said, “Well, first, you need to understand that I don’t really summon anything. In my experience, mediums are simply people who have the ability to open a kind of door for . . . a certain type of energy to enter our space or dimension.”

			“Spiritual energy?” Anna’s hands, clasped together in her lap, were twisting restlessly even though her voice was calm.

			Relatively.

			Hollis nodded. “There’s nothing inhuman about it, nothing magical. In fact, it’s based on science being seriously researched in many different reputable facilities around the world as we speak. It’s an ability, the way some people have an ear for music or an uncanny flair for mathematics or physics. The theory is, some people are hardwired to . . . pick up and interpret electromagnetic energy on certain frequencies. Each medium’s frequency is different, which is why we get as many misses as hits and why we tend to use our abilities differently. Some mediums see the dead, some hear them, and a relative few of us can do both. But it’s perfectly natural to us. It’s how the human brain works, after all, using electromagnetic energy. What I have, what I’ve learned to use to a certain extent, is just another sense.”

			A short laugh escaped Owen. “Well, you’re original, I’ll give you that much. So it’s just a sense and not a gift, huh?”

			Before Anna could offer a fluttering apology, as she showed every sign of doing, Hollis looked at Owen and answered him in a very deliberate tone.

			“Believe me, most of the genuine mediums I know would never call it a gift, what we can do. At best, it’s something we learn to live with, and hopefully learn to control and make some decent use of. At worst, it takes over our lives and sometimes makes us question our sanity.”

			“And do you question yours?” he asking mockingly.

			“Only on days like this.”

			DeMarco spoke without haste but still managed to soothe their agitated hostess and silence her brother-in-law, to say nothing of calming Hollis—at least slightly. “I think the best thing to do right now would be for us to begin the reading.”

			Owen muttered, “Don’t you mean ‘séance’?”

			“Hollis prefers the term ‘reading,’ since what she does involves none of the traditional trappings of a séance.”

			She looked at him in slight surprise but was prevented from asking him when he’d decided to toss the séance idea out the window when the butler entered the room silently, carrying a large silver tray.

			Anna directed him to set it on the coffee table and said, “Thank you, Thomas. I’ll pour.”

			“Yes, madam.” He retreated as silently as he’d arrived.

			“Coffee first?” Anna asked tentatively.

			Knowing how cold she was likely to be after the reading, Hollis nodded, with only a glance at DeMarco. “Yes. Thank you.”

			They went through the curiously stilted ritual of being served coffee, both Hollis and DeMarco politely refusing little sandwiches and pastries on a tiered server.

			Owen Alexander ate several of each.

			Hollis thought the polite “visitor” chitchat their hostess doggedly maintained during the rather ceremonial coffee drinking was a bit ridiculous under the circumstances and wasn’t very happy that her partner courteously helped it along.

			Time was ticking away. It was dark now, and she was uneasily certain that they would be invited to spend the night. And Hollis didn’t want to spend the night here. Because her initial guess had been right; this house was definitely what any genuine medium would term haunted. Very much so. She was already aware, on the periphery of her senses, that more than one restless spirit inhabited this old house, undoubtedly with things to communicate to the living.

			It wasn’t that Hollis was afraid of them; she had long ago moved past fear in dealing with spirits even if that had driven her in the beginning to block so fiercely that she had rarely seen and even more rarely been able to hear spirits. Now she wasn’t even sure she could block; the “door” that most mediums spoke of tended by this stage of her life to be almost always open as far as Hollis was concerned.

			Almost always. As with most abilities, it sometimes appeared to have a mind of its own, not subject to her will or needs.

			But even with time and experience under her belt, with all the advice and counsel of other mediums in the unit, she still hadn’t reached a place within herself where she found the interaction with spirits at all normal or comfortable. She couldn’t be matter-of-fact about it.

			And haunted houses promised sleepless nights. The dead didn’t need to sleep and didn’t seem to have any problem at all keeping the living up when it suited them.

			She set her coffee cup down on the table and said rather abruptly, “I know you’ve seen quite a few mediums since your husband died, Anna. Do you feel you were ever able to communicate with him?”

			Anna sent an uneasy glance toward Owen and said, “There were a few who seemed able to summon—to reach Daniel. But—”

			“But Google offers more information than they did,” Owen said in disgust. “Flickering candlelight, thumps and bumps, and spirit guides with low-pitched and heavily accented voices notwithstanding.”

			Anna looked acutely unhappy. “I’m just not sure,” she confessed to Hollis. “I thought at the time . . . but Owen is right. They didn’t tell me anything they couldn’t have found out easily beforehand.”

			“What is it you expect him to tell you?” And when Owen snorted, Hollis added evenly, “I’m not asking for specifics, just wondering if you have a particular question in mind or just need to know that he’s at peace.”

			A shaken laugh escaped Anna. “I feel a bit like Houdini’s widow, but Daniel told me more than once that if there was anything beyond this life, he’d find a way to contact me and let me know. And he was an exceptionally strong and determined man, so if anyone could keep that promise, it would be him. He was . . . not as cynical as Owen, but he was a realist, and knew there was a good chance fraudulent mediums would try to take advantage of me. So we worked out a message only the two of us would know.”

			“And so far no medium has delivered,” DeMarco murmured.

			“So far, no. Then a friend of mine who sits with me on the board of a major charity told me about Hollis.”

			Hollis wanted to ask at least one of the questions tumbling through her mind, but DeMarco’s fingers closed around her wrist, and she remained silent. Outwardly, at least.

			How does Bishop manage to do stuff like that? Arrange stuff like that? Know when to arrange stuff like that?

			Because she had no doubt that he had, and it was one of the few true mysteries of life in the SCU. Not many secrets in a unit peopled with psychics, except the ones Bishop kept.

			Unaware, Anna said, “She said she’d heard wonderful things about your abilities, that you were genuine. And that you never took money for helping people communicate with loved ones. Even Owen had to admit he didn’t know why you’d pretend to make contact if you couldn’t.”

			“Unless you get off on delivering false hope to people,” Owen said, his tone deliberately baiting.

			Hollis didn’t bite, though she did look at him for a moment before returning her gaze to Anna. “Just please understand, I don’t channel spirits; I don’t become them or anyone else other than myself. I don’t have any spirit guides or, as I told Mr. Alexander, go into any kind of trance or become unconscious. I’m fully awake and aware the whole time. I just concentrate, really, try to focus.” She hesitated, then added, “I can’t promise anything will even happen. It doesn’t always.”

			“What a surprise,” Owen Alexander drawled.

			Hollis looked at him, narrowed her eyes for a moment, then looked over his left shoulder. “You really should believe in spirits, Mr. Alexander,” she said, more grim than triumphant.

			“Oh? And why is that?”

			“Because you’ve got one just behind you. And from the way she’s looking at you, I’m guessing she’s a former girlfriend or mistress. Did you kill her, or was it someone else?”




Haven

			“I knew I felt pain,” Maggie said with a sigh.

			“A shot in the leg,” Bishop confirmed. “Not fatal or even especially serious under normal circumstances, but he lost a lot of blood and he was in the middle of nowhere. With a wanted fugitive on his trail, highly motivated to catch him, especially if he posed a threat.”

			John said, “You mean if he realized Luther is psychic.”

			“Yeah. If. And given Luther’s tracking skills, and his ability to . . . hide in plain sight, I’m assuming that his target wouldn’t have noticed his presence any other way.”

			“Safe assumption,” Maggie murmured. “Though I’m not at all sure Jacoby’s dogs wouldn’t have heard or sensed somebody outside that cabin. Even somebody with the camouflage skills Luther has might not be a match for three well-trained guard dogs. By the way, how do you know he was shot in the leg?”

			“Callie.”

			Maggie had to search her memory, but only briefly. “Callie Davis? She’s your agent there?”

			“She is. And she’s one of the few members of the team who can reach Miranda and me without the need for a cell tower or a landline, no matter how far away she is. Whether it’s because she broadcasts on a frequency right in our range or because she’s capable of focusing on a particular target when she sends is something we haven’t determined yet. We do know the two-way communication exists only when Callie is the one who initiates it.”

			“Not even you and Miranda can reach her otherwise?”

			“So far, no. If her shields are up, they’re impenetrable.”

			“But you got a message from her saying Luther had been shot in the leg.”

			“Not long ago,” Bishop confirmed. “Miranda is in California on a case and got the same message at the same time.” Miranda was his wife and partner in every sense of the word, a team primary agent in the SCU—which often meant they worked different cases far away from each other, as they obviously were doing now. But their psychic connection was rather extraordinary.

			Distance between two people was one thing; being separated was something else entirely.

			Not being psychic himself, and so lacking that particular mental and emotional link with his own beloved wife, John rather envied them their special closeness, even though he knew the same psychic connection that made them an amazingly strong team and solid anchor for the unit was also their Achilles’ heel. No one was completely sure, but they had some evidence to suggest that because their connection was extraordinarily deep, and growing deeper as time passed, it had become a literal lifeline between them: sever it, and both could die. Injure one and at the very least incapacitate the other, physically, emotionally, and psychically.

			“How’s Luther?” Maggie asked. If she was aware of her husband’s musings, she showed no outward sign of it.

			“When Callie sent her message, he was sleeping. Out, really; she had sedated him. She dug the bullet out of his leg and took care of the wound. Don’t worry; she’s also one of my agents with EMS-level medical training. He’s in good hands.”

			“And if Cole Jacoby tracks him to her place?”

			“There’s the thing about her being able to repel negative energy, remember. And if that doesn’t work, well, she’s also good with a gun. Very good, in fact.”

			John frowned and said, “If Jacoby was able to manipulate the minds of those agents during the transfer—”

			As usual, Bishop was a step ahead. “Then why couldn’t he affect Luther’s mind even if he couldn’t get through to Callie’s? Luther does have a shield of sorts; it should protect him, or at least make him aware if someone is attempting to get into his mind or control his actions. Virtually every psychic I’ve ever known has been able to detect attempts such as those.”

			“Maybe because they’re so rare,” Maggie mused. “The unusual does tend to stand out.”

			“It does,” Bishop agreed. “Which may be one reason why Jacoby’s security escort never saw it coming. Remember, all Jacoby did with the agents was leave them with a few gaps in their memories. And neither one of them is psychic, so no protection, no shields, no awareness of a psychic . . . intrusion. Even so, as far as we know, he wasn’t able to do anything more than . . . persuade them . . . to take a wrong turn or two, pull the car over, uncuff him, and then take a nap, forgetting what they’d done. They woke up on the outskirts of a small town where it was easy for him to boost another car.”

			It was Maggie’s turn to frown. “You said gaps. That they had gaps in their memories.”

			“When they woke up, they were about a hundred miles west of where they should have been,” Bishop admitted. “And somewhere along the way Jacoby must have been hungry because there were fast-food wrappers in the back, courtesy of the driver’s cash.”

			“Surveillance cameras?” John asked.

			“Yeah, the particular fast-food restaurant he chose had been robbed so many times they ramped up security. There was a camera on the drive-through, and we got to them before they could perform the usual end-of-the-week wipe of the footage.”

			“Was Jacoby visible?” Maggie asked.

			“No. A shadow in the backseat that must have been him, but he hid himself well. And before you ask, the agent driving as well as the one in the passenger seat seemed perfectly normal.”

			“Ordered food, paid for it, spoke to the employee at the window?”

			“All of the above. And nothing out of the ordinary.”

			“You mean nothing seemed to be,” Maggie murmured.

			“Exactly. The agents were, to all appearances, calm and casual, and neither showed any signs of being forced to act against their wills.”

			John wondered aloud, “Does that creep anybody else out, or is it just me?”

			“Me too,” Maggie said. “Bishop, they don’t remember any of that?”

			“No.”

			“Did he rob them?” John asked.

			“As a matter of fact, both their wallets had been cleaned out of cash, though no credit cards were taken, and both still had their credentials and cell phones.”

			“Weapons?”

			“Still holstered, not fired recently.”

			“So he didn’t need a gun,” John said slowly. “Or knew better than to steal one registered to a fed.”

			“Apparently. Neither agent remembered either turning off-course or stopping anywhere. But one agent woke up before the other one did to find their car parked just off the road and out of sight of any passing traffic, and to see his partner apparently sleeping peacefully.”

			“And Jacoby did that,” Maggie said. “All that.”

			“Jacoby did all that,” Bishop agreed.



* * *



“HOLLIS,” DEMARCO WARNED.

			But she was beyond listening. The chill of gooseflesh all over her body, the fine hairs standing on end, the odd sensation of a cold breeze moving not around her but through her, all told her this was one of those times when the door between this world and whatever one chose to call the spiritual world was wide open. Barely hearing her partner, she watched instead the eerily almost-transparent spirit standing just behind Owen Alexander, concentrating hard so she could hear as well as see.

			Hearing them had been more difficult for her in the beginning, and still usually required intense focus from her.

			. . . was . . .

			. . . was his . . .

			. . . was his fault . . .

			“What was his fault?” Hollis asked the very pretty and rather startlingly young spirit.

			Owen glanced behind him as though against his will, scowled, and said sharply, “What’re you—”

			“Quiet,” Hollis ordered. “I can barely hear her as it is. What was his fault? And who are you? What’s your name?”

			. . . No. It wasn’t his fault . . . left me . . . He left me.

			“Left you where?”

			DeMarco, watching Owen, since he couldn’t see what Hollis saw any more than anyone else in the room could, saw the older man’s face whiten and a kind of dread creep into his eyes. Aside from Hollis’s firm voice, the room was utterly silent.

			In the car. He . . . told everyone . . . it was stolen, but . . .

			“But the car wasn’t stolen? What happened?”

			. . . missed a curve. Went into the river. He got out. She shook her head, dark hair swirling eerily around her as though she stood even now in deep water. He got out, and he left me.

			Hollis was concentrating intensely. “What’s your name?”

			Jamie. Jamie Bell. Her face changed suddenly, and she took a step sideways so she could see Owen’s frozen face. It was such a long time ago. He didn’t mean to do it. Any of it. So it wasn’t really his fault. He was showing off, going too fast, the way boys do. And when the car went into the water . . . he was afraid. He panicked. I . . . don’t think he could have saved me anyway. The current was so strong. It was in the spring, and the river was swollen. He couldn’t have saved me.

			Hollis wasn’t so sure, but all she said was, “Do you need the car to be found? Your body laid to rest?”

			Jamie shook her head. That doesn’t matter so much. There isn’t anything left of me, really. Except this. I’ve been trying . . . I needed to tell him I forgive him.

			“That’s what’s kept you here?”

			Jamie looked at Hollis pleadingly. Tell him, please? That it wasn’t his fault? That he can’t let what’s left of his life be ruined by that secret?

			“I’ll tell him for your sake,” Hollis said grudgingly.

			Jamie smiled for the first time. Thank you. He really was the only thing keeping me here. My family and friends moved on a long, long time ago. They let go. But he never could. Never could forgive himself. Tell him he can, please.

			“I’ll tell him.” Hollis was about to ask if there was anything else she could do for Jamie when she found herself suddenly almost flinching back as she blinked at the extraordinarily bright light that had appeared from nowhere. It seemed to have no distinct source, and yet it enveloped Jamie, leaving her in silhouette. The “floating” strands of hair that had been one indication to Hollis that she was looking at something otherworldly settled about her shoulders, and then she took a step forward, smiling at Hollis. For that moment, she looked flesh-and-blood real.

			Thank you.

			“You’re welcome,” Hollis said slowly, watching as the light brightened even more, completely enveloping Jamie—and then dimmed, shrank, and vanished within seconds.

			“Well, what do you know.” Hollis blinked and looked at Reese. “There is a light, after all. This time, at least.”

			“You reacted physically,” Reese told her, calm. “Your pupils contracted.”

			“They did?”

			“Definitely.”

			Hollis thought about that, then nodded. “I’m not surprised. It was a very bright light, and appeared suddenly.”

			“So you know something you didn’t know yesterday,” he responded. “Worth the trip just for that.”

			Anna asked eagerly, “What did you see? Who was it?”

			Hollis returned her attention to her supposed client. “Not your husband, I’m afraid. I’m sorry. This spirit was here for your brother-in-law.”

			Owen said harshly, “I don’t believe in that bullshit.”

			Remaining calm, Hollis said, “Suit yourself. But my job is to pass on messages, and I just got one for you. Jamie Bell says you have to forgive yourself for what happened to her.”

			“I don’t know what you—”

			“She drowned. You were driving, you lost control and missed a curve, and the car went into the river. The water was deep, the current fast. You managed to get out, but she didn’t.”

			If Owen had been pale before, he was sheet-white now.

			Anna, clearly bewildered, said, “I’ve never heard anything about a car accident. Owen—”

			“It was a long time ago,” he said slowly. “Over forty years, long before you met Daniel. I wasn’t much more than a kid myself, and scared half out of my mind. When I made it back here, Dad and Daniel went back to the river with me. We tried, but . . . we couldn’t even find the car. The current had already taken it. There was no rail on that curve, no visible signs of damage on or near the road.”

			Neutral, DeMarco said, “I gather there was no police report.”

			“No.” He at least had the grace to look guilty, and avoid the steady gazes of the others. “No, Dad— The family decided against it. I was only eighteen, headed for college in the fall. Jamie was . . . a girl I met in Nashville. She didn’t even tell her roommate she was leaving the city with anyone.”

			Hollis wanted to be angry, to demand to know whether it had ever occurred to him that Jamie’s family and friends had never known what had happened to her, had never been granted any sense of closure.

			But then he looked at her, finally, with haunted eyes, and Hollis felt her anger dim. Whatever mistakes this man had made, whatever sins he had committed, they clearly had affected his life.

			“She forgave me?” he asked, something in his voice ample evidence that he was still struggling to come up with a rational explanation as to how Hollis had known what she knew.

			Owen Alexander still didn’t believe in spirits.

			“She needed you to know that. So she could move on. You’re the only one left who even knew what happened to her.”

			“You’re trying to tell me she’s been here, in this house, all these years?”

			“Not in the way you mean. Not haunting you or anything. She’s been . . . nearby, waiting for an opportunity to contact you. You weren’t open to that sort of experience, so she had to wait for someone who was. As to where she waited . . . We’re not sure if it’s another dimension the way science would define it or another plane of existence. Maybe it’s even another kind of reality just out of sync with ours. We don’t know.”

			For a moment, Hollis reflected that whatever they were, the dimensions or alternate realities or whatever had to be many and varied, since each medium’s experience appeared to be unique. For instance, Diana Brisco,1 a very powerful medium in their unit, was able to visit a gray place without even shadows, where nothing really existed in any sense, like a corridor between two worlds.

			A place Hollis had visited herself, which was creepy enough; the likelihood was that having been there and being a medium, she could well be drawn there without warning and against her will. That was something she hadn’t really faced and didn’t want to now.

			“What, she’s in limbo?”

			“Wherever she was,” Hollis told him, “she’s moved on now.”

			“On to heaven?” He was trying hard to sound mocking.

			“Well, into a light place. However you choose to define it, I’m thinking better a light place than a dark one.”

			“You don’t know?”

			“You mean do I believe in heaven?” Hollis recalled an experience that had occurred months in the past and smiled without meaning to. “Let’s just say I’ve seen convincing evidence that heaven—or something a lot like it—must exist.”2

			“And I’m supposed to just buy all this?”

			“I’m not selling anything, Mr. Alexander. I’m just telling you what I saw. What Jamie Bell told me. Now you can decide it’s all bullshit and go on with your life, or you can choose to accept the forgiveness offered to you and go on with your life, or you can ignore the whole thing and pretend today never even happened. Up to you. I’m just the messenger.”

			She hesitated for a moment, then said unwillingly, “Jamie told me that her family and friends had moved on a long time ago. So even though they never knew what happened to her, they must have known somehow that she was never coming home again, and made their peace with that. You were the one Jamie was worried about. You were the one she said needed to let go of what happened and move on.”

			His gaze avoided hers then, and he remained silent.

			Hollis turned her attention to Anna, who she realized with a start was looking at her with desperate hope. Reluctant to disappoint the older woman, she nevertheless said, “I did tell you there was no way of knowing who might come through. Mr. Alexander was angry, and he made me angry—and sometimes strong emotions have a distinct focus. That was why Jamie came through. Well, that and the fact that she’d been waiting such a long time for someone who could open the door for her.”

			“And . . . and Daniel?”

			Hollis rubbed one forearm absently, glancing down to see what she felt: no goose bumps or fine hairs standing on end, and no sense of that strange wave of cold sweeping through her, the three things that almost always happened whenever she was in the presence of spirits.

			All had existed the whole time Jamie had been visible. She was still vaguely aware of spiritual energy around her, but it was distant, on the periphery of her senses. All of her senses.

			Something new.

			“I’m afraid the door’s closed for the moment,” she said, hoping it was because she was abruptly conscious of being very, very tired. Physically and emotionally. And cold in a different way; she was only barely able to stop herself from shivering.

			DeMarco spoke up then to say, “It might not show so much, Anna, but this takes a lot out of Hollis, a lot of her own energy. She needs to rest before she tries to contact your husband.”

			“I’ll be happy to come back tomorrow,” Hollis offered, not about to argue with her partner, since she wanted to take a very hot shower and then curl up and take a nap. For about twelve hours.

			Anna was clearly disappointed but spoke quickly to say, “There’s absolutely no sense in you two making that long drive from town twice. You can stay the night here. In fact, you’re welcome to stay as long as you feel it’s necessary. It might even help,” she added with more than a touch of pleading in her voice. “If you spend more time in his house, it might be easier for you to contact Daniel.”

			“Oh, but—”

			“Please, the guest rooms are always ready, and there are two connected by a little sitting room on the second floor that I’m sure will suit you.”

			Which, Hollis thought, neatly resolved their hostess’s potentially awkward dilemma as to whether to ask if her unmarried guests needed one bedroom or two. Before she could gather her thoughts to form a refusal, she heard her partner smoothly accepting the invitation.

			“Thank you, Anna. You’ve saved me a long drive back to town with Hollis snoring in the passenger seat.”

			“I would not,” Hollis said somewhat indignantly. “Snore or sleep. Besides, we didn’t even bring luggage.”

			“Yes, we did. Since we hadn’t unpacked at the hotel, I put both our bags in the car while you were . . . discussing . . . with the hotel manager the remarkable lack of high-speed Internet.”

			“His sign said Wi-Fi was available,” Hollis said irritably. “Not just high speed, but wireless. The sign didn’t say a thing about it being available apparently only during a blue moon that happened to fall on a Thursday. In December.”

			“Point made,” DeMarco murmured.

			“Truth in advertising. There ought to be consequences.”

			“Trust me, he knows that now.”

			Anna said brightly, “So that’s settled. I’ll have Thomas show you to your rooms and have your luggage brought up. You two can rest and freshen up, and we’ll have dinner around eight thirty. Is that all right?”

			Hollis wanted to argue, but she was just too tired. And cold. Maybe a hot shower would help, or maybe she’d take a little nap before dinner. At any rate, despite her misgivings, she admitted to herself that either was infinitely preferable to getting back into the car and heading back to that odd little town, especially since that odd little hotel in that odd little town didn’t offer room service. And she had a strong hunch they rolled up the sidewalks in that town somewhere around sundown.

			Supper would be out of a vending machine if they didn’t stay here and take advantage of the Alexanders’ hospitality.

			“Thank you,” she said with a little sigh. “That would be wonderful, Anna.”

			Whether the spirits of the mansion would disturb her was only a faint and passing thought.





FOUR




Luther Brinkman realized he was waking up even before he could force his eyelids to open, because he smelled coffee. It smelled wonderful.

			He had no idea how long he’d been out, but his stomach felt empty and when he was finally able to open his eyes, the lids practically scraped across his corneas.

			He’d been out a while. Quite a while.

			“More than twenty-four hours. It’s around dawn. On Wednesday.”

			He blinked several times, staring up at rough-hewn beams, turning her voice over in his mind.

			Ah. The woman in the woods. The one with the shotgun.

			Suddenly wary, he began to push himself up onto his elbows, biting back a sound of pain as his leg throbbed a protest. He was covered with a blanket but could feel the constriction of a bandage around his upper thigh.

			A pillow was stuffed behind his head and shoulders, and a steaming cup placed in his hand. “You shouldn’t move very much just yet. You’d already lost a lot of blood, and I had to dig pretty deep to get that bullet out.”

			She had to dig?

			“You’re lucky, though. The bullet was right up next to bone but hadn’t damaged it as far as I could tell. And, luckily, it missed the femoral artery.”

			When he was able to focus, he found her back to him as she poured herself a cup of coffee. All he could tell was that she wasn’t nearly as tall as he remembered but was nevertheless a tall woman, was slender in a thin, ribbed sweater and close-fitting jeans, and had long, very pale hair almost silver in color.

			Tearing his gaze from her, he looked around to find himself in what appeared to be the main room of a log cabin that was less rustic than one might expect out here in these woods. He could see a hallway, so assumed a bathroom and probably a bedroom. A couple of oil lamps as well as battery-powered lights scattered around testified to the absence of electricity. This main room was on the small side and was divided by a long, narrow table into roughly two halves: cooking/dining and a comfortable living room.

			Luther was on the couch. A comfortable couch.

			The place was spare, but rather cheery, with a brisk fire in the big stone fireplace and thick, colorful rugs scattered on the wide-planked wood floor. Plain linen curtains covered a couple of small windows. A hunting trophy, the head of a ten-point buck, was mounted above the fireplace, but it was the only sign this might be a hunter’s cabin. On other walls, innocuous prints of peaceful mountain landscapes provided the decor.

			Beyond the table where his rescuer stood, he could see a compact kitchenette that looked clean and well organized. Something that smelled good enough to make his mouth water bubbled in a pot on a gas stove. Stew, maybe, or soup. Whatever it was, his stomach growled a longing.

			Remembering the coffee cup in his hand, he lifted it and took a cautious sip. As he savored the strong taste he preferred, he caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye and turned his head.

			A dog lay on a thick rug near the door, watching him fixedly.

			A very big black-and-tan dog, heavily muscled.

			A Rottweiler.

			“His name is Cesar,” she said. “You should thank him. From here, it’s an almost continuous climb to Jacoby’s cabin. I never could have gotten you back down here without him. He’s trained to pull a litter.”

			Luther thought the dog could probably have pulled a semi, but he didn’t say so. Instead, he looked at the woman, now facing him.

			There was something curiously . . . unreal . . . about her. The pale hair that wasn’t platinum blond or gray or white but truly silver, almost metallic. The heart-shaped face with delicate features, not beautiful but somehow infinitely memorable. Dark, dark eyes. Hypnotic, those eyes.

			He guessed she was in her early thirties, less because the few lines in her face hinted at maturity than because there was a curious stillness and serenity about her that could only have come with a certain amount of years and experience.

			“I snooped while you were out,” she said, her voice calm and as unremarkable as her face was remarkable. “Checked your ID, assuming it’s real.”

			“It is.”

			“Okay, Luther Brinkman, your wallet and gun are in the drawer of that end table beside the couch. Your jeans are soaking in the washtub; I managed to get them off without doing any more damage than the bullet had already done, but they were blood-soaked all the way down to the hem.”

			Luther, suddenly very conscious of being in a T-shirt and shorts, tried not to think about her stripping his unconscious form. She had, after all, taken care of his wound—undoubtedly her only concern.

			“With this chilly weather and without a dryer, those jeans won’t be wearable anytime soon; I usually go to the Laundromat in town no more than once a week, and I went a couple of days ago. Luckily for you there’s a trunk packed with an assortment of clothing kept here, and I think there are some things that’ll fit you well enough.

			“My name is Callie Davis. My family built this place about thirty years ago; a lot of them liked to hunt. I don’t like to hunt, even though I can handle guns.” She paused, studying him for a moment, then went on. “With a very stressful job, breaks are a good idea. I come up here for the solitude. The month of October is generally very peaceful and uneventful. This year, not so much.”

			“Sorry,” he murmured.

			“Well, you didn’t start the trouble, as far as I can tell. It appears that Cole Jacoby started the trouble, when he took up residence in that rented cabin and promptly began going berserk whenever anyone got within a hundred yards of the place.”

			“So that’s why . . .”

			“Why I went out so late yesterday to check and see if he’d shot somebody? It seemed a wise thing to do. You’re the first he’s actually hit with a bullet, as far as I know, but he peppered a couple of surprised hunters with buckshot a few days ago when they were just hiking past to get where the hunting’s legal. And had his dogs chase them far enough to make his point.”

			“Nobody called the cops?”

			“Out here? We take care of our own problems. He wants to be left alone, and he’s made sure everyone in the area knows it. So he’ll be left alone. Future hunters will be warned to give the area a wide berth. No fuss, no bother.”

			“And if he’s dangerous?” Luther asked.



* * *



COLE JACOBY WIPED his nose with the back of one hand and stared at the blood. “I can’t do this,” he muttered.

			You can. You have to.

			“She’ll know. I’m almost sure she knew before.” His head was pounding so hard he felt dizzy.

			She won’t know. Not if you’re careful. Not if you push in just the right place.

			“But I’m not sure where to push. How. There are . . . She’s not alone. And I’m so tired.”

			Reach down deep. That’s what you have to tap into.

			Jacoby found a paper towel to hold to his nose and fought to control the dread sweeping over him. “There? The dark place? I don’t want to go there again. Please don’t make me.”

			That’s why they want you, Cole. Why they’ll hunt you. Why they won’t leave you alone. Because you can go to the dark place. Because you can use the power you find there. You can use it against them, use it to defeat them. We all know that.

			“Then I’ll stay away. Leave the dark place alone. And they won’t care about it anymore.”

			Cole . . . Cole. They’ll care as long as you’re out here. As long as you aren’t under their control. Locked up in their prison. You know that. We all know that.

			There was a pause. Cole wondered vaguely if his nose was still bleeding but didn’t remove the paper towel to check. He was tired. He was so tired, and his head still pounded, and he just wanted to be left alone.

			You know you aren’t alone, Cole. You’re never alone now.

			“But I want to be,” he whispered. “I need to rest. Can’t I rest for a little while?”

			A little while, Cole. But not for long. You have too much to do.

			Cole was hungry and thirsty, but he was more tired than anything else. He sat down on his cot and prepared to curl up, taking a moment to reassure himself that he’d fed his dogs hours before, that they were safely in their beds for the night.

			They were all looking at him, he realized dimly. In their beds but not asleep, not even resting. They were wide awake, staring at him alertly. Almost watching him. They looked tense. In fact, he thought Ace’s fur was standing up all along his spine.

			Cole wanted to calm them, reassure them somehow. But he was confused about why they would be tense. He’d raised them from pups, an abandoned mixed-breed litter some bastard had tied up in a burlap sack and tossed off a bridge into a river. Luckily, Cole had seen it happen. Had been able to rescue the pups before they drowned, dry their small, shivering, terrified bodies. Feed them what had seemed their first meal in days, at least.

			Except for the months in jail, he had taken care of the dogs all during the three years since that day, and all three had rewarded him with their absolute devotion. He’d been a responsible pet owner: they’d been properly socialized as pups and were obedience trained. Lucy and Cleo had been spayed, Ace neutered, and all of them were current with their vaccinations and flea and heartworm prevention. The friend who had kept them for Cole while he’d been inside all those months had been well paid but was also an animal lover like Cole and had kept meticulous records detailing any necessary vet visits as well as routine care.

			Cole had always wanted them to feel safe and loved. He kept them clean and well groomed, and they ate a high-quality dog food. He was good to them, kind to them. He loved them.

			Why were they all looking at him like that?

			Or maybe it was the others they were afraid of?

			Too tired to keep wondering about it, he lay down on his cot, the paper towel still held to his nose. He didn’t even take off his shoes or draw the thin blanket up around himself, just curled up on his side, drawing his knees up and huddling inside his jacket.

			Tired. Just so tired.

			But at least they were finally—

			We’re still here, Cole. We’re always with you. And we’ll never leave you. Never.

			He pressed part of the paper towel to his mouth but still heard the whimper escape.

			And looking across his single-room cabin in the faint, flickering light of the dying fire, he was absolutely sure that the eyes of his watching dogs all glowed red.



* * *



“IF HE’S DANGEROUS?” Luther repeated when the silence had stretched a good minute. “What then?”

			In a deliberate tone, Callie Davis said, “Bears are dangerous. Snakes can be dangerous. Escaped felons—assuming he’s the one you’re after—are quite likely dangerous. Private investigators who carry guns are probably dangerous.” Her shoulders lifted and fell in a faint shrug. “This is a dangerous place. Most of us like it that way. Living with danger can make you feel alive in a way nothing else can.”

			Luther happened to agree with that but wasn’t quite ready to delve into the subject. Something was nagging at him, some question, but he couldn’t seem to find it in the fuzziness of his mind.

			Callie didn’t seem to notice—or just wasn’t bothered by—his silence. She merely said, “I thought it best to let you sleep, but you must be starving by now, and the stew is ready. You should eat, then probably sleep some more. Give your body time to heal. The sun will be up in a bit. Cesar and I have been out a few times to check on Jacoby, and to judge by his lack of follow-up, it would appear he’s forgotten all about you.”

			“Seriously?”

			“It would be in character, at least as I’ve judged it in the last week or so. As long as no one gets close to that cabin, he keeps to himself. No sign he’s ventured far from it, and when I backtracked, it was clear he made no effort to get out and try to find you yesterday, in daylight; the only tracks between here and there were ours.”

			Luther wished that made sense to him.

			“I thought he might have decided to wait until night and clear out, in case he’d killed you. So I took Cesar and went out a couple of hours ago, and got a bit closer, close enough to check on Jacoby’s cabin without attracting his notice. He’s still there, dogs inside and quiet, no sign of life except the dying fire in his fireplace, and his Jeep is parked in its usual spot. If he’s your escaped felon, he sure isn’t acting like he cares whether he’s been found. Or even that he shot someone who could be dead or dying in the woods.”

			“He has a Jeep?”

			“Yeah. You actually approached his cabin from the more difficult direction, given the terrain; over the rise behind his cabin is something that used to be an old logging road. Not on any of the maps. It’s still usable—if you have a major four-wheel-drive and serious all-terrain tires. Jacoby does.”

			“Then he didn’t come from town.”

			“No, not directly. In fact, I haven’t talked to anyone who saw him there. Or up here, for that matter.” She shrugged. “There’s a series of old logging roads and mining roads all through these mountains, and most cabins built up here are within a fairly short walk to one of them. We have to bring up supplies, after all, and hiking with a propane tank or fuel for a generator isn’t exactly smart, never mind awkward and exhausting. My Jeep is parked at the end of one of the logging roads only about fifty yards from here.”

			Luther frowned. “Do the forestry people know about the roads?”

			“Of course.” Her tone was patient.

			“Then why couldn’t they follow one to Jacoby?”

			“You have to know where you’re going in these mountains, or the roads just take you in circles. Assuming Jacoby was smart enough to leave the main roads miles before he got near any town, let alone ours, and then used a few tricks to throw off trackers following him from Virginia, I imagine any search parties sent after him would probably have been about two mountains north of here and wouldn’t have a clue in which direction to aim their teams. There was no way in hell they were going to find him using a traditional search. Which, I gather, is why you’re here.”

			“You think one man on foot is better than teams of forestry people and other trained searchers with dogs?”

			“Well, they didn’t find him, did